If it’s in the Dictator Handbook that you must leave behind an extravagantly unaffordable and unnecessary vanity project, then Ivory Coast President Félix Houphouët-Boigny has fulfilled that requirement.
In the village-turned-capital of Yamoussoukro, the world’s largest church stands towering above a lush sprawl of grazing cattle and ramshackle buildings. A copper cross gleams atop a massive dome, while underneath, a marble and granite plaza stretches over seven acres and could fit a crowd of 300,000. But despite its $300 million price tag and 18,000-person indoor capacity, the out-of-place classical Greco-Roman structure has remained mostly empty for the past 25 years.
Houphouët-Boigny, Ivory Coast’s first president after the country’s independence from France, was immensely popular for the 33 years he ruled the country. He was also immensely rich, amassing a fortune of billions that apparently paid for the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Paix de Yamoussoukro, or “The Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro”—though he refused to answer questions of the church’s financing, saying it was “a deal with God.”